- The Washington Times - Monday, September 14, 2009

Not many people can begin a family anecdote with, “One time, my grandfather said to Louis Armstrong at Seder …”

Comedian and uber-mensch Billy Crystal lays claim to that and more in his unabashedly schmaltzy and riotous one-man show “700 Sundays,” an evening of reminiscences and home movies about his often unconventional Eisenhower-era upbringing in Long Beach, Long Island.

While Mr. Crystal and his family enjoyed the usual diversions of 1950s middle-class New Yorkers — catching Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar on the black-and-white TV, watching Mickey Mantle play ball at the old Yankee Stadium, cooking out on the patio with the relatives and spending summer vacation at a Catskills resort — they also were atypical.

Mr. Crystal’s family ran the fabled Commodore Music Store on 42nd Street in Manhattan, a jazz mecca, and his uncle Milton Gabler founded the Commodore jazz label (recording “Strange Fruit,” among other milestones) and went on to further producing fame at Decca Records. As “700 Sundays” so vibrantly describes, the Crystals’ suburban home was a heady stew of “Jews and jazz, brisket and bourbon.” When he was a boy, Mr. Crystal’s suburban home was the hangout of many jazz greats — Billie Holiday took him to his first movie, “Shane,” where she muttered “He ain’t comin’ back” at the film’s famous closing scene; Ella Fitzgerald was a frequent guest; and both Count Basie and Duke Ellington attended his father’s funeral. (Needless to say, the shiva house became a jam session.)

The title of the show refers to the brief time Mr. Crystal had with his dad, who died of a heart attack when the comedian was 15. Sunday was the only day Mr. Crystal and his brothers had their father to themselves, and his recounting of those times, filled with throwing baseballs at a neighborhood field, and the sight of his father sitting in the late-afternoon sun playing the mandolin are keenly observed.

The three-hour show leans on the indulgent side, with lots of asides and ad-libbing, and Act Two opens with a long sequence showing the middle-aged Mr. Crystal playing baseball with the Yankees. His often guilt-riddled renderings of his mother and father make them into unalloyed heroes — inspiring, but one-dimensional.

Far more robust are his recollections of his deaf, flatulent grandfather walking down the hall like a one-man band, his torturous puberty (complete with his nether regions thundering their needs in a basso voice) and a side-splitting story of his high school basketball team — made up mostly of vertically challenged Jewish boys — playing a game with the black gods of Erasmus High School’s squad, which had such players as Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Ethnic humor and personal idiosyncrasies abound in “700 Sundays,” but as Mr. Crystal observes, “We all have the same five relatives; they just jump from album to album.” With humor and grace, he takes these family memories and molds them into potent material.

★★★½

WHAT: “700 Sundays,” by Billy Crystal, additional material by Alan Zweibel

WHERE: National Theatre, 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Sept. 17.

TICKETS: $42 to $92

PHONE: 800/447-7400

WEB SITE: www.nationaltheatre.org

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